Lexington Philharmonic music director Scott Terrell says Friday night’s performance of the Stephen Paulus’ “To Be Certain of the Dawn” is well-timed to end a week that saw the culmination of a surprising presidential election and the annual observance of Veterans’ Day.
“The piece is definitely about the idea of a greater humanity, and I think that certainly should be brought into perspective this time of year,” Terrell said recently, as rehearsals for the work got under way. “With Veterans’ Day, certainly the idea of loss and sacrifice play into my thinking as well with both pieces on the program.”
Friday night, Paulus’s 2005 oratorio addressing the Holocaust will be preceded by Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Chamber Symphony,” which the composer dedicated “In memory of victims of fascism and war.”
“There’s a saying, ‘There’s a difference between grasping something and being grasped by it,’” says Michael Browne, who was the librettist for “To Be Certain of the Dawn.” “You can understand something intellectually, but when it reaches out and grabs you, it’s at the level of the heart. So, once I was underway, I was wholly taken up by Jewish thought about this unthinkable event and the Christian response — which was generally a poor response, though there were some people who did good things. I just rode the river of it.”
The piece is definitely about the idea of a greater humanity, and I think that certainly should be brought into perspective this time of year.
Scott Terrell, Lexington Philharmonic music director
“To Be Certain of the Dawn” was commissioned by the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis as a gift to Temple Israel in the same city to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi death camps and the 40th anniversary of “Nostra Aetate (In Our Times),” the Vatican II document that condemned blaming Jews for the death of Christ.
The 60-minute work is divided into three sections: an expression of grief from Christians for failing to support the Jews in the face of the Holocaust, a dramatization of four photographs from Roman Vishniac’s book “Children of a Vanished World,” and finally “Visions,” in which Browne says, “I have in mind an interfaith landscape, where members of different faiths are able to walk together in ways they have dreamed of doing but which circumstances through history and aberrations of human behavior have too rarely allowed.”
To present the work, the Philharmonic has enlisted the combined choirs of Berea College, Asbury University, Centre College and the Danville Children’s Chorus, most of which the Philharmonic has collaborated with in the past. Terrell says it was easy to get choirs to agree to participate in a work by Paulus, who is highly regarded in the choral world. Asbury choir director Vicki Bell says two Paulus works are in the regular rotation of pieces that she has Asbury groups perform. But “Dawn” has distinct features, Bell says.
“There were some really sharp and biting dissonances that were different from the pieces I rehearsed in the past,” she says. “I immediately fell in love with the piece.”
The dissonances reflect the dissonance of the text, which can in places be harsh, even hard for some of her students to express, Bell says.
“The awfulness of some of the stories would seem trite if you set them to beautiful harmonies. There’s an angularity to the choral lines that I have not found in other pieces of his.”
Browne worked with Paulus, who died in 2014, many times but says that “Dawn” took on a deeper level of expression and seriousness for the composer. And it has enjoyed an extensive performance history since its premiere.
Terrell says the work will be given a theatrical presentation in Lexington, including projections of some of the Vishniac photographs.
“It’s about creating the atmosphere the composer had in mind — drawing attention to certain people in certain points of the text,” Terrell says. “Stephen really envisioned a sort of all-encompassing liturgical work, that has a sense of ritual we often see in denominational services. It’s more than just the standard oratorio thing, and that was intentional; that’s what Stephen wanted. ... I think it’s going to be a very powerful experience for everybody there.”
If you go
‘To Be Certain of the Dawn’
What: Stephen Paulus’ oratorio, with a libretto by Michael Browne, performed by the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Scott Terrell with Kentucky Opera Studio Artists and the combined choirs of Berea College, Asbury University, Centre College, and Danville Children’s Chorus.
When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 11
Where: Singletary Center for the Arts concert hall, 405 Rose St.